The current WBA female super lightweight champion—and the first Native American woman to hold a major world title—boxer Kali Reis is not to be messed with in the ring, and she proves an equally formidable fighter and actor in Catch the Fair One, writer/director Josef Kubota Wladyka’s stripped-down thriller about a pugilist on a mission to rescue her sister from a sex-trafficking ring. Executive produced by Darren Aronofsky (and produced by Nomadland’s Oscar-nominated Mollye Asher), it’s a lean, efficient variation on Taken in which women are both predator and prey, and happily-ever-afters are best left to the imagination.
One of the standouts of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Catch the Fair One picks up with Kaylee (Reis) as she spars, gets rubbed down, and taped up by her trainer Brick (Shelly Vincent) in the moments preceding a casino fight. Before we can see that bout unfold, the film leaps to Kaylee waking in her boarding-house bed and removing a hidden razor blade from the inside of her cheek. With corn rows, matching cheek piercings, and a neck, torso and hands covered in tattoos, Kaylee exudes rugged, no-nonsense intensity, and as later meetings with her estranged mother and a pimp will elucidate, she’s part Native American, part Cape Verdean. No matter her imposing exterior, though, her ensuing trip to a communal shower, as well as a scene in which she waits on tables at a diner—where she’s cruelly mistreated by a customer, and then surreptitiously packs up that person’s leftovers for herself—reveal her to be far more vulnerable than her appearance suggests, not to mention wracked by shame and anger about her circumstances.
That night, Kaylee and Brick drive to an abandoned parking lot where they meet a man who shows them a cell phone image from a prostitution marketplace site of a young girl who Kaylee identifies, almost certainly, as her missing sister Weeta (Mainaku Borrero). For a price, this guy hooks Kaylee up with Lisa (Isabelle Chester), who sneaks Kaylee into the trafficking ring as a potential girl for sale—and, in particular, with a trafficker who specializes in Native American women. Dangerous doesn’t begin to describe the situation in which the boxer puts herself, which is why Kaylee trains for this undertaking as if her life depended on it. Both on a mat and in the ring against a much larger male adversary, Kaylee shows off the special set of skills she needs to take on the fiends lying in wait.
Catch the Fair One follows Kaylee with a close-proximity intimacy that heightens the tension of her journey. With camerawork (courtesy of Ross Giardina) that traces Kaylee from the front and behind as she walks along corridors, paths, and structures—as well as cars as they navigate long, winding roads through dense surrounding forests—Wladyka (whose debut Manos Sucias won “Best New Narrative Director” at the 2014 Tribeca fest) drums up edgy suspense from his concentrated formal gaze, which has a serpentine composure that’s in tune with his protagonist. Complementing those signature shots, the filmmaker places a visual premium on mirrors, intimating the process by which Kaylee questions herself (or avoids doing so) throughout this quest for vengeful justice. Coated in icy blues, blacks and whites, the film has a gritty visual sheen that amplifies its brusque muscularity, and the ruthless efficiency of the entire affair is furthered by a script that wastes no time on unnecessary exposition.
Barreling forward without any interest in filling in all the sharp, jagged corners of its plot, Catch the Fair One immerses us both in Kaylee’s headspace and in the seedy underworld milieu of sex trafficking. That business takes place in dingy hotel rooms where scumbags force women to take mandatory shots of heroin (the better to keep them docile and under control) and pose for online-profile photos, as well as in basements and train yards where they’re treated like cattle. The fact that this is a portrait of white men exploiting Native American women for profit and sexual gratification isn’t lost on the film, but Wladyka shrewdly leaves those larger sociopolitical concerns unremarked-upon; like the rest of his thriller, he allows his spartan scripting and visual storytelling to convey the material’s wealth of pain, suffering, and righteous fury.
“The fact that this is a portrait of white men exploiting Native American women for profit and sexual gratification isn’t lost on the film…”
Reis is always front-and-center in Catch the Fair One, and as with Gina Carano in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, she proves a real-life fighter with big-screen physical presence, capable of believably, and suspensefully, squaring off against a variety of imposing opponents. Far more important, however, is Reis’ expression of Kaylee’s rage, fear and sorrow, born not only from her sister’s abduction but also from her mother’s disaffection (and possible wish that Kaylee had been the daughter who vanished), her own struggles with addiction, and the life-threatening peril in which she’s willingly placed herself. The longer we stick beside Kaylee, watching her from a car’s backseat or as she sneaks between titanic semi-trailer trucks, the more we sense her anguish, her desperation, and her growing desire to exterminate every last man responsible for this system of monstrous misogynistic abuse.
Given that Reis is the undisputed star of Catch the Fair One, Wladyka wisely keeps his focus on her as the story sends Kaylee deeper and deeper into a grungy heart of darkness where evil is the norm, to be casually smirked at and carried out in workaday fashion by businessmen happy to build palatial mansions upon the backs of young kidnapped girls. The callous commodification of women is the real horror of Wladyka’s feature, exemplified by a late encounter with the mastermind behind this operation (Kevin Dunn), who upon being asked by Kaylee to cough up Weeta can only disbelievingly remark, “You think I remember their names.” Sociopathic disregard for human life is the force against which Kaylee rails, and what she finds in the end is bloodshed, sacrifice, and a dream of reunion that seems unlikely to last. There’s hope in that fight, and awful hopelessness as well, and it’s in that raw, bittersweet middle that Catch the Fair One generates its greatest power.
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